Larry Quinn occupied an elevated, corner table at Bacchus Wine Bar on election night. With his campaign manager seated to his right and his close friend, businessman Frank McGuire, on his left, he watched the results filter in on a laptop in between shrimp and scallop dishes.
There wasn't much doubt that the former developer and Buffalo Sabres minority owner would occupy a seat on the board, so everyone wanted to be with him to celebrate at his small-but-growing dinner table. Quinn kept asking for another chair as local and state education reform group representatives dropped by.
Finally, with landslide numbers declaring his victory, Quinn picked up his phone and called Samuel Radford III, leader of the local parent group.
“I wanted my first call to be to you,” Quinn said, calling Radford his inspiration to run for the board.
That call appears to be the start of a carefully orchestrated effort by the new Buffalo School Board majority to lay the groundwork and curry support for its ambitious plan to overhaul the struggling school system.
In the weeks following the election, members of the new board majority worked quietly behind the scenes trying to amass support from stakeholders and decision makers alike, everyone from Radford and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore to State Education Commissioner John King and leaders in the charter school community.
But even as they worked to woo backing, early indicators suggest members of the board majority failed to gain buy-in from one key group – their colleagues on the board.
Those members who now make up the board minority have been critical of what they say were closed-door efforts to draft a strategic vision for the schools and to appoint Donald Ogilvie as the new interim superintendent.
And those critics say the majority's actions were not just an insult to them, but to the communities they represent.
“This is a very public position,” board member Sharon Belton-Cottman said. “At the end of the day, the agenda should not be their agenda, but the people's agenda.”
At the heart of the conflict is a growing tension that has developed as powerful business leaders have taken an unprecedented interest in the Buffalo Public Schools, an education system closely guarded by the community it serves. And it's a debate that, in a district made up predominantly of poor, minority children, all too often plays out along the dividing lines of race and class.
Addressing the tensions that have been building since the May election will be critical as the board moves forward, and likely will be one of Ogilvie's main priorities as he acclimates to his new position.
Whether he is successful in that effort will inevitably set the tone – and possibly the course – for the school system.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that's going to turn this district around is for members of the School Board to work together on the things they agree on, rather than battle over the things they don't,” Rumore said. “Otherwise, we won't get anywhere.”
Laying the groundwork
Political tension is no stranger to the Buffalo School Board, and this latest strain is the remnant of at least a year of division among its members.
Wealthy maverick developer Carl Paladino got the ball rolling last year after pledging to get rid of former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown even before he was elected to the board. Though he fell one vote short of firing her last September, he continued to do everything in his power to upset the board majority, helping elect members who would support his push to remove the superintendent.
Paladino brought unprecedented attention to the problems of the district. That became evident during the election, when some of Buffalo's most wealthy and powerful elite threw thousands of dollars into the campaigns for Quinn and Patricia Pierce, the other candidate Paladino encouraged to run for office.
Quinn ultimately emerged as a quiet leader on the new majority, meeting with stakeholders to share ideas and determine the course for moving forward.
After his phone call to Radford on election night, Quinn talked about building bridges.
“We don't want to continue to talk about us-versus-them,” he said. “I think that's really destructive.”
As far as Quinn and key majority member James Sampson were concerned, patching the district's tense relationships with parent groups, community organizations and, most of all, the state Education Department, were top priorities.
Shortly before Quinn was sworn in as a board member and Sampson, the retired CEO of a child services agency, was officially named board president, the two took a road trip to Albany and met with King for an hour.
Sampson described himself as a fan of King's work, saying that King, Quinn and himself share similar philosophies on how to improve struggling schools.
When King made reference to his frustration in working with Buffalo school district leaders in the past, Sampson and Quinn were quick to assure him that those days were over.
Quinn also met with Bill Phillips – who as president of the Northeast Charter Schools Network is the state guru on charter school operators across the country – to seek advice for the board majority's plan to create more charter schools in Buffalo.
And Quinn, who has pledged to take a leading role negotiating a new teachers contract, met with Rumore, who acknowledges that he rarely meets individually with School Board members.
“I thought it was a good meeting; it was a good sharing of perspectives,” said Rumore, acknowledging that he and Quinn have much different perspectives on public education and showing a fair amount of skepticism for their future relationship.
“Too often, when people come onto the board, they don't really know the reality of the situation,” Rumore said. “Some of the things he said I agree with him on. What we need to do is continue a dialogue.”
Those meetings helped lay the groundwork for the board majority's strategic vision, which aims to increase the number of seats at high-performing schools, largely by encouraging more charter schools to open in the city and upping enrollment at successful schools in the district. It also set the stage for a new level of tensions that had already started brewing.
If serious strains existed on the board prior to the May election, those only multiplied following the wins that upset the majority.
Quinn, bringing a clean slate with him to the job, attempted to heal the divide.
As soon as he realized that Barbara Seals Nevergold, a former teacher and community activist, was going to win re-election, he told his campaign manager, “I'd be OK with that. She's really a nice lady.”
For a brief period, some board members on both sides expressed cautious optimism that they might be able to work together.
“I met with both of the new board members, and I said to them, 'I would like for us to be able to work together, and I look forward to it,' ” said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, a retired Buffalo schools administrator and member of the new board minority.
Nevergold also said she had received a pleasant call from Quinn and looked forward to speaking with him. Subsequently both Quinn and Sampson asked Nevergold if she would be interested in the position of vice president of executive affairs.
But despite those efforts, it's clear that post-election bitterness lingered.
At the board meeting the night after the election, board members on both sides traded dirty looks and sniped at their opposition.
“Two fools together,” outgoing board member Florence Johnson muttered about Paladino and board member Jason McCarthy.
Nevergold never got the job as vice president, in large part because of the slights the incoming majority endured when both sides were negotiating the selection process for an interim superintendent while Nevergold was still president.
Despite advice from outgoing board moderate John Licata that the lame duck majority would be “blind” not to recognize a change in leadership, the old majority spent its June board meetings repeatedly refusing to allow newly elected members Quinn and Pierce to have any role in the selection process.
They called the pair's participation “unethical” and “unheard of.” They rebuked the new board members for having “a sense of entitlement” and not showing up at their board meetings as spectators. And they refused to accept the fact that Sampson was heir apparent to the board presidency.
“I do not want to give anyone any power that they have not earned,” Belton-Cottman said.
When Sampson asked to meet with Nevergold privately to discuss an interim superintendent selection process, Nevergold said no. Any discussions should be made publicly with the whole board, she said.
People expected miracles of former superintendent Brown, she said. Whatever expectations the incoming leadership has of the next person should be clearly shared with everyone.
Both Quinn and Sampson, two of the most influential members of the newly constituted board majority, repeatedly expressed frustration regarding the outgoing majority's immovable position.
“This group is operating as if there wasn't an election. I just don't understand it,” Quinn said last month. “I pleaded with several of them to include a process that includes the incoming members. I can't do more than that.”
A tipping point was reached at the end of June, less than a week after Brown negotiated her exit agreement, when the state Education Department released graduation figures reaffirming progress Brown claimed the district was making.
Brown often pointed to the projected increase in graduation rates during public presentations and speeches. Her critics, including board members, argued that the district's numbers were cooked and encouraged a state audit.
When the improved graduation rates were released, Brown's supporters relentlessly attacked her critics, calling the increase a “hollow victory.”
Nevergold said the Brown naysayers on the board owed the former superintendent an apology.
“If people were honest, and if people were fair-minded, they would acknowledge that the achievements supported by Dr. Brown – and verified by the state – are real,” she said the day the graduation rates were released.
She later sent out a letter to the community lambasting those who criticized Brown, including The Buffalo News Editorial Board.
Members of the new board minority also reprised long-standing complaints that their opposition on the board was being too cozy with the state Education Department and leaking information to reporters.
They took aim at McCarthy with accusations that he violated the board's ethics policy by discussing what happened in a private executive session with the media. They even filed a petition with the state to remove him from the board.
They also criticized Sampson for talking on the phone about turnaround plans for Martin Luther King elementary school with then-Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz.
“We have staff to do that,” Belton-Cottman said.
“Number one, he called me,” responded the normally mild-mannered Sampson. “Number two, I can talk to anybody I want.”
It was in this environment that, a week before the new board's first public business meeting, Sampson sent members of the board the majority's vision for the district.
Then, days before the meeting, he shocked those in the minority with his announcement that he planned to bring a contract for Ogilvie before them to vote on. Those in the minority accused him and the other members of the majority of hypocrisy because they did not conduct a public and transparent search process, as they had previously called for.
“To me, it's just typical of what we can expect from them,” Belton-Cottman said.
“We are the talk of the state right now, you know that?” she said. “They're using us as the poster child for how not to do this.”
Given all that happened in the weeks following the election, it seemed inevitable that those tensions would dominate the board's first public meeting.
And they did.
Within seconds of Sampson calling the meeting to order, members of the new minority lodged their heated and passionate criticism against their opposition.
A few members wanted to move the discussion into a closed session to discuss the interim superintendent position, as originally planned. But Quinn said there was no reason to be secretive about the discussion.
They argued for two hours, with all of the members of the new minority laying out their grievances against the new majority. Nevergold, who typically maintained a reserved and even demeanor as board president, was uncharacteristically outspoken.
Amid the fury, there were signs of some effort to find common ground.
At any point during the debate, any member of the board majority could have brought the resolution to appoint Ogilvie to a vote, knowing they secured enough votes for it to pass. They didn't. Rather, they let those in the board minority have their say.
Later in the meeting, following a tense conversation about a plan to add positions at Lafayette and East high schools, Sampson made a point to defer to Theresa Harris-Tigg's experience with school reform plans.
“You know EPOs better than anyone at this table,” he said to her, referring to the educational partnership organizations that work with struggling schools.
Sampson also made it clear he did not intend to vote along the majority-minority lines. Instead, he told the board he would vote with Harris-Tigg, an education professor, and other members of the minority. Quinn and Pierce followed his lead. The only two members to oppose the proposal were Paladino and McCarthy.
If anyone can help mend the divide between the two sides of the board, it could be newly appointed interim superintendent Ogilvie.
As the debate raged on about his appointment, Ogilvie – who was waiting in the wings – asked if he could directly address some concerns.
Those in the board minority respectfully listened. They still expressed skepticism about Ogilvie's willingness to take the post without meeting all board members beforehand or going through a public process. But they also said they want him to meet with them and their constituents.
Two days after his appointment, Ogilvie, at the request of a parent, met with a group of area ministers. Ogilvie later called the contentious debate a “frank and candid exchange” in which he saw hope.
“I have a board of nine members. They are strong. They are intelligent, and they are passionate about the future of Buffalo Public Schools,” Ogilvie said. “They realize we will not achieve success if we don't work together.”
News Staff Reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com